How ironic was it that, as I sat down to write this article, the second I typed the words Arab Culture the time in the right-hand corner of my computer screen jumped to 9:11pm? It is as if this date, September 11th, is intertwined with the word Arab and with this region so deeply that it is even deliberately programmed into my laptop. While I personally have no intention of looking at the Arab region through biased eyes, my laptop seemed to have turned itself into a racist figure.
The next second I realized that it hasn’t “turned” itself into a racist. No one intentionally becomes a racist—after all, who doesn’t want to understand others and be understood at the same time? It is freedom of speech that makes stereotypes—opinions expressed with no malicious intent. Knowing that King’s Academy will soon be flooded with outside opinions and preconceived ideas of the Arab world during the Round Square conference, I present here a list of five stereotypes of the Arab world and possible responses to each:
All Arab Women Wear The Hijab
Personally, this is the comment that I received most from my non-Middle Eastern friends, many of whom even suspected that I had been forced to wear “that thing.” A selfie easily cleared the suspicion, but the stereotype itself wasn’t broken. The negative connotation of this stereotype, as I sensed, is not centered around the generalization but rather on the word Hijab. The word here seems to be understood as a symbol of oppression. Instead of trying to prove that not all Arab girls wear the Hijab, it’s more effective to first eliminate such a distorted interpretation of Muslim culture—that the Hijab is a chain to woman’s mind, rather than form of female empowerment. An explanation of the Hijab can be an interesting icebreaker in explaining Islam to visitors who know little about the religion.
All Arabs are rich. Oil deposits cover the land of the Middle East and make everyone millionaires.
One friend from China never bothered to learn anything more about Jordan as soon as she heard the word ‘Arab.’ Every morning I wake up and receive a message from her saying, “How’s Dubai going? See you around selling oil!” Or from another friend who asks, “When are you buying me diamonds?” as I try to explain that there’s barely any oil in Jordan.
One response that stopped these mindless gabbles was, “How can you assume that every Arab drives a Mercedes–Benz yet also rides a camel and carries bombs?” The portrayals of all Arabs being either oil sheikhs or street bombers contradict each other, which is an irony within the stereotyping itself that is worth noting.
“All Arabs Are Terrorists”—thus said King’s Academy students in the last Florida Round Square conference, to the shock of the other participants. In this upcoming conference, it should be the goal of all participants to further dispel this stereotype. We must teach the world that the mother tongue of the Middle East pronounces the word salaam far more often than it does the word bomb.
All Muslims Are Arabs
One straightforward fact that breaks this stereotype: the country with the largest Muslim population is—not Saudi Arabia, not Syria, not Iraq—but Indonesia, which, believe it or not, is not an Arab nation.
The Middle East = The Arab World
This is the most common because many people can’t tell the difference. A friend of mine once sent me a critical reading passage on Arab culture, in which the first question asked the reader summarize its content. One of the possible answers was:
“A) The passage discusses the general development of Middle Eastern culture.”
And my friend said, “Everyone who reads this question instantaneously chooses A to be the correct answer. Everyone.”
But it’s wrong. The separation between a geographic concept (the Middle East) and an ethnic concept (Arab identity) is so blurred that, when hearing the phrase “Middle Eastern conflict,” people’s minds automatically think of “Arab conflict,” disregarding ethnic groups besides Arab living on the same land. Jews live in this region, but they’re not Arab? The more disconcerting part is that this stereotype has become so subconscious that it is rooted inside people’s state of mind as a fact more than an opinion. To eradicate it, one must make the effort to actually sit down and look at the entire structure and history of the region.